Thursday, May 26, 2005

Do Not Be Deceived

I read an interesting letter to the editor in World magazine the other day. While the topic of the letter isn't relevent to this article, the writer made a statement qualifying believers (those who claim to be 'born again') as "only those who are active in church and living out their faith." (italics mine)

Interesting distinction, I thought, and one of the greatest sources of confusion and deception in the body of Christ today. Now I'm not a biblical expert, but I can't find anything in Scripture that declares that one must be "active in church", to be a born-again follower of Christ. But being active in church seems like such a good thing that it surely can't be bad to use church participation as an indicator of a soul's spiritual state, you say. This logical error compounds one of the greatest deceptions that we struggle with as believers today. The deception is this - that being part of an organized church is what being a believer is about.

Now don't get me wrong - in itself the organization and structure we call the church is not a bad thing. But it has grown in complexity through services, programs, and ministries, until it consumes the lives of the church attenders. It is a tar baby that pulls you in, and sticks to you, each touch compounding the problem, until at last you and the tar baby are indistinguishable. At some point in this consumption, the average church attender comes to believe that these services, programs, and ministries are what being a believer is about.

Now I don't know how the average church attender would respond to my challenge that they see the organizational functions of the church as their calling as believers, because I haven't asked, for the most part. I suspect they would say that being caught up in the organization we call the church is not the main purpose of a believer. But their actions reveal and betray them. If you watch where and how their time is spent, it would appear that the chief end of an average believer was, in fact, the services, programs, and ministries of the church.

Here I must take a stand, here I must disagree. When I read the Scripture, I read that being a believer is about living the will of God, glorifying Him, and enjoying His presence. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself sums up the Law, as Christ said, not being active in church.

So, it comes down to this. Activity in church is no indication of being a follower of Christ. Can you be active in church and be a believer? Absolutely. But you can also be deceived. You can spend your life caught up in services, programs, and ministries, and somehow think that that is what being a believer is about, while your neighbor is consigned to hell because you failed to see the meaning in the declaration of God that you are to love your neighbor as yourself.

For those that are deceived by their involvement in the organization of the church, there will be no greater tragedy than standing before our Lord, protesting your service, your programs, and your ministries, as He says "depart from me, you who are cursed... for I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

Be cautious, fellow believer, and do not let your involvement in the organization we call the church mask your call to be the salt of the earth, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as your self.

Do not be deceived.


Kent C. Williamson said...

Very good points... and perfect timing as my next post deals specifically with the phenomenon I've coined called Trickle-Charged Christians... stay tuned...

Erik Elvgren said...

You're right that many are deceived into thinking their good works and attendance are going to earn them entrance to heaven, but stretching to make that into critique of the church makes quite a leap.

Describing the church as an entitiy that "consumes the lives" of attenders implies that the church is some kind of monster.

My experience has been that the people who are most involved in a church are generally the ones with the deepest faith. Its those that rarely attend or who are not involved in ministry work, the "Sunday Christians", who are the most likely to be deceived about their state of salvation.

Your description of the decieved believer points to those who are missing a basic doctrinal point: that Christ's death on the cross paid for their sins, not their works. But you critique the church as if its keeping them decieved by providing them an opportunity to think they are earning their salvation? So by providing an opportunity for them to do good things, the church is actually cementing them into the fallacy they already have. What better place is there for these people than in the pew where maybe they'll hear the true gospel message.

It's easy to point out problems in the church. Is it active enough in showing God's love in Christ to a broken world? No. Is it often focused inwards on buildings and programs instead of more important societal issues? Sure. Do some people consider their Sunday morning activities the fullfillment of all their responsibilities in their walk with God? You bet.

But one should be careful to not throw out the baby with the bath water. Some churches do help the poor in the name of Christ. They do pool resources to send missionaries out to spread the gospel. They do provide opportunity for community worship and for the correction of individuals (ie. discipline.) Some of those "programs" do reach out with a message of love and support in Christ. Some of these "programs" provide opportunities for believers to use their gifts for the kingdom. Sometimes life "in the church", doing the work of a ministry with others is a terrific way to serve the kingdom of God.

Dave Moorhead said...

Erik, I don't mean to pick a fight but I didn't hear Brad saying anything about people thinking that they are going to earn their salvation by getting involved in the many activities offered by the modern church. I think you are right in saying that it is often the people who have a real heart for God committing themselves to those ministries. The question seems to be, "Is getting deeply involved in the ministries of the church a sign of being born again?" Biblically speaking, the answer to that question has to be an unqualified, "No."
First of all, we know that it is possible for people to involve themselves in all kind of ministries in the name of Jesus and still be lost. In Matthew 7 Jesus says that he will say to them, "Depart from me, I never knew you."
Here we have the only sure sign that one is born again. Do I have a living relationship with God because I have a living relationship with Jesus Christ? Does Jesus know me and do I know him? There is no qualifier there that says, "Depart from me because you didn't learn your creeds, or attend church services often enough, or serve in your midweek youth ministry." It is simply a matter of being known or not being known by Jesus.
Second, I don't mean to speak for Brad but it might sound like it. I hear him saying that perhaps we should stop evaluating other peoples' relationships with Jesus based on how involved they are in church ministries or on how often they attend corporate worship. Jesus told the Father in John 17 that he sent his disciples into the world just as the Father sent him into the world. What are Christians supposed to be doing? We are supposed to be doing the same things in the world as Jesus did. Instead, too many of us never venture into the world because we are too caught up in keeping the ministries of our churches running. In the past I was horrified at how few relationships I had with unchurched people. I just didn't have time to involve myself in their lives. Too busy at church!
I pastor a brand new congregation of the postmodern, emerging church type. Many of our people call our church "their church" even though they may only attend once every three or four weeks. Is it my place to demand more frequent attendance? Is it my place to tell them what they are supposed to be doing with their time? Is it my place to tell them what their "ministry" ought to be. I don't think so.
It seems to me that I need to offer rich, corporate worship opportunities to our people, teach them what the Bible says, and be available to them to serve them. The rest is up to God. He is perfectly capable of using the ministries of the Holy Spirit to urge people to attend worship more or less often. He is also able to use them to minister to their friends on Sunday mornings.
As a pastor I must confess that for many years my own sense of worth was tied up in seeing my congregation in the pews week after week. I tended to take it personally when people didn't attend. I also tended to think that those who didn't attend weekly were weaker Christians. Thank God he has released me from that way of thinking. Now I can rejoice in the people he brings me and trust him for the rest!
Thanks, Brad, for thinking.
Your brother,
Dave Moorhead

Kent C. Williamson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ron Goetz said...

Once upon a time there was a tiny hermit crab who found a tiny shell for a home. When she grew, she would seek out a slightly larger shell to live in. This happened over and over, until she had the largest and most beautiful shell of all the hermit crabs.

All the hermit crabs admired her big shell and complimented her continually. When it was safe she would clean the algae and barnacles off her shell. She was so proud of her large and beautiful shell.

As she aged, her energies ebbed. She began to shrink. At first the shell seemed only a little too big, but eventually it was an enormous burden to drag around the sea floor. It was so heavy that she didn't have the strength to find food. It was never safe enough to even eat the algae that covered her massive edifice.

Another hermit crab said to her, "Why don't you find a shell that fits you?" She answered, "But it does fit me! It's a beautiful shell!"

Eventually she could no longer drag the large and beautiful shell. She hid under it, waiting for little morsels of food to crawl near or to come floating by.

It lived for many, many years. Occasionally a larger bit of food would drift by, and she would feel energized. She would peek out from under her massive shell, and always decide it was too dangerous too look for a better house to live in.

Then her energies would subside again, and she would shrink, shrink, shrink.

Finally, she died. As her body decayed, little bits of her flesh floated away and were eaten by little fish and other hermit crabs.

Ron Goetz said...

We need to look at the (probable) motive behind the inclusion of active church membership as a definition or condition of salvation. It's inclusion is a way of smuggling hierarchy, conformity, and formal organizational membership (i.e. numerical success) into every individual's behavior.

Including "active church membership" into the definition is quite self-serving for the hirelings who run the organizations.

What is indeed accurate to say, on the other hand, is that people should be involved with a group of people who share more or less the same vision of their spiritual aspirations, a group which helps every individual to develop their giftedness.

Many people talk about the "work of the Kingdom" or some other phrase regarding the Kingdom. This is a recognition that the work of the "church" is not the same as God's Kingdom Work. My fear is that the word will eventually become equivalent to "church."

I'd just like to repeat something I've written elsewhere. A key problem in discussions like this is in the many usages of the word "church."

In Catholic circles it the word often refers to the official hierarchy, as in "what is the Church's teaching on . . ."

Other times it refers to all of Christendom, as in "down through the ages, the church has taken many forms . . ."

Sometimes it refers to a building, as in, "What a run-down looking church!"

Other times it refers to the congregation: "Let's put it to a church vote."

Sometimes it refers to the preaching service: "That behavior is not appropriate during church."

Or, worse, it refers to the sanctuary as a "holy place." "That behavior is not appropriate in church."

In daily usage, the most common is probably, "I'm going to church Sunday." This refers to a combination of the building, the meeting, the people, and the sanctuary.

Other times it refers to any level of the organization itself. "What does your church believe about . . ."

When we talk about the Biblical concept, I think we need to use the words "ekklesia" and "koinonia."

When we're talking about our own small groups, a number of phrases are good. "Home fellowship," "house church," etc. I like "Christian community," but it's a little vague because "community" can be small (good) or as large as Christendom (bad).